When did you fall in love with reading? With writing?
I think I’ve always been in love with reading, but that’s probably because my parents read to me early on. My parents were young and not exactly financially secure. My mother, left at home with two kids on summer break, used to march us across town to the library once or twice a week. The marching was from a lack of a car, and the library was free entertainment. Taking us there and back probably wore us out for our naps, so she could have a minute of peace. Maybe I had complaints back then, but those trips across town to get library books are some of my fondest memories now.
I started writing in the second grade, but I didn’t finish anything for years and didn’t share anything for more years still. I was always in love with writing, but not in a way that made me do much of it. I can’t say that I truly fell in love with writing until I began to take it seriously and to write not just when I had a deadline.
What is your favorite part of being a writer?
There are people who would say “the writing,” and other people who would say “having written.” In terms of the process, I would have to say that I enjoy the second draft best. That’s the point at which I’m no longer facing the blank page of the first draft, but I’m starting to discover how the story will connect and layer. That’s when you’re shaping and finding out what you meant to say and how to better say it. But then there’s the third, fourth, fifth, whateverth draft and the relationship with the manuscript does go back to being strained.
The very best thing about being a writer, though, is the community you build as you go along. The mystery community, for instance, is so generous and fun. They just genuinely enjoy each other’s company. They also have morbid senses of humor—dark, but hilarious.
Describe your perfect reading atmosphere.
Couch. Quilt. Tea. Dog. Someday I’m going to have a fireplace, and my reading environment will be complete.
What might your personal library look like?
My actual personal library is a series of bookshelves stuffed to dangerous levels with books I’ve read and books I want to read. Once I tried to clean up my shelves, and a stack of books fell on my head. They were paperbacks, so no harm done. But that’s probably how I’ll die someday. My dream personal library has one of those nooks to curl up with lots of pillows, and a butler to bring the tea (see above).
What piece of literature can you read over and over again?
Only a few books fall into the category of books I’ll read over and over. There are just so many books to read, and life is short. But I’ve read The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx four-ish times, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice a few times. I try to read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff every New Year’s Eve, but it’s very short and lends itself to being an annual read. I’ve also read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird about five times—it’s my summer-on-the-back-porch book. If you’re a writer and you haven’t read it, I’m jealous that you still have it ahead of you.
What was the first book you remember reading that really changed something about you or the way you thought?
The best thing about books is that they all change something about you or the way you think. I could probably name ten or so books from my childhood that turned me into a reader and into the kind of person who might someday try to write. The books that have changed my life’s course by a degree are too numerous to recount here.
The magic of reading is finding that book out there that’s been hiding in its pages something true about you. Even books written a hundred years before you were born—they’re talking about the life you lead, and the person you know you are. There’s nothing else like reading.
If you could live in any of the books you have read, where would you want to live and why?
I would definitely buy property in Louise Penny’s Three Pines (from her Detective Armand Gamache series), but let’s be real: a lot of people get murdered there. For such a tranquil little snow-globe village, it’s an awfully bad neighborhood.
What books are on your nightstand/TBR pile?
This changes weekly, but what I like to keep next to the bed is nonfiction, usually short pieces that I can read before bed, or pick up and put down as I fall asleep. The best right-before-bed books for a mystery writer are the two books on Agatha Christie’s “secret” notebooks by John Curran. These are books about how Christie worked, with excerpts from her notes. Reading about her process made me want to get back to my own work in the worst way, but then I’d also suddenly get really tired after a few pages. Perfect. I’m also a big fan of everything Susan Orlean does and Gene Weingarten’s book The Fiddler in the Subway.
The mystery authors whose books I always watch out for are Louise Penny, Clare O’Donohue, Catriona McPherson, Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Denise Mina, Inger Ash Wolfe, Sara Gran, Alan Bradley, and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I’m working my way through Hank Phillipi Ryan’s books, William Kent Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series, and Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge historical series.
The worst part about being a writer is that you don’t have as much time to read as you once did. And as you move into the community, you only meet more and more people whose books you want to read. That’s the bad news—so many lovely books and not enough time.
What is it about writing mysteries that attracts you?
There’s a theory that mystery readers like to solve puzzles and like to read stories where even the worst that can happen—usually, murder—can be righted. Society can survive its worst moments; justice can be served. Along those same lines, mystery writers might be the kind of people who like to do the justice-serving. We like to fix things up right. Puzzle-lovers also like to be right—but we also like to be wrong, especially when reading a twisty, turny mystery. I like to be fooled until the last minute when I’m reading, and I hope to give that kind of ride to other readers.
What was the inspiration for your book?
The Black Hour is about the aftermath of a college campus shooting. I was thinking about these kinds of events, and how even the survivors are never the same afterward. I’ve worked on a college campus most of my professional career, so I don’t think about this kind of thing lightly. What if the shooter died, but the victim, who had no idea why she’d been targeted, lived? I wondered what the victim’s first day back on campus felt like. We’d like to think that a victim of violence would be treated compassionately, but we have plenty of examples in real life to show us the worst-case scenario. I borrowed Lake Michigan from the campus I work on. It was inspiring to my book to drive to work every day.
Why do you write? What interests you in the world and how do you use that in your writing?
One of the things I figured out writing The Black Hour is that I need more than a plot to keep myself interested. A book takes a long time to write, especially for someone who works a full-time job, and I needed more from a project than just getting from scene to scene. I needed the writing to be, in some way, funny and fun. I was writing this book during my lunch hours; I had to want to have lunch with these characters every day.
In The Black Hour and in my work-in-progress, I’ve also found that I like to work threads of social issues into my character’s problems. I would never write a story just to talk about a social issue—that would feel flat and lifeless to me. I would die of boredom before I finished a manifesto novel. But when my characters interact with the real world in one way or another, they feel more real to me—more like people I want to keep getting to know, and more like people I want to introduce around.
How does the Chicago writing community impact your writing?
The writing community is Chicago is vast, varied, and active. It's a real writer's city. I've found my community through the mystery writers organizations I joined here, but there are so many options for writers of all genres here. Chicago is a city that demands to be seen and written about. For crime writers, well, what can I say? We have a lot of inspiration.